Matthew Carr writes in a guest column for Informed Comment:
Until this year, Spain appeared to be relatively indifferent to the Islamophobic politics that have become so endemic throughout Europe. In a few short months however, the signs are that Spain is moving rapidly away from a relatively laissez faire approach to immigration toward the more coercive assimilationist model being pursued elsewhere in the continent – a model that is primarily concerned with the country’s one million Muslim immigrants. In April a Madrid secondary school prohibited a Muslim teenager from attending school in a hijab and ignited Spain’s first ‘headscarf controversy’. Since then that the debate on what Muslim women should be wearing has become a burning national issue. Following various prohibitions by local town councils on the burqa and niqab, a proposal to introduce a national ban on full face and body covering was narrowly defeated in the Spanish Congress in July.
This less than emphatic rejection may prove to be only temporary, as rightwing politicians issue increasingly strident warnings that ‘immigrants’ must conform to Spain’s constitutional and cultural values or leave. In July the Socialist town council of Lleida closed a local mosque, claiming that the number of worshippers had ‘exceeded its allowed capacity’ in another indication of the changing landscape.
Debates about Muslim female dress codes and Islamisation may well be a convenient distraction from an economic crisis that has produced the highest unemployment in Europe. But these developments also echo older tendencies in the country of the Reconquista and St James the Moorslayer. Four hundred years ago, Spain expelled some 350,000 Muslims known as Moriscos or ‘little Moors’ from Spanish territory in what was then the largest forced population transfer in European history, even larger than the expulsion of the Jews in 1492.
The Moriscos were all nominal Christians who were forcibly converted to Catholicism at the beginning of the sixteenth century. Following their conversion, Spain’s rulers demanded the complete eradication of their Islamic religious and cultural traditions. Public or private bathing, dances, the speaking of Arabic, circumcision and Muslim burial rites, even eating couscous were regarded as deviant acts and punished with fines, imprisonment and even execution.
Then, as now, these demands often focussed obsessively on female dress codes, but for very different reasons. In sixteenth century Spain female emancipation was not a high priority. The Muslim veil or almalafa was regarded by the Church as a potential cover for illicit sexual liaisons and an expression of religious deviance, and women who wore it were liable to be fined or flogged.
Tolerance was not considered a virtue in sixteenth century Spain, and the repression of the Moriscos was intended to hasten the disappearance of a minority that Spain’s rulers regarded as alien, inferior and a potential fifth column. These efforts were spearheaded by the Inquisition, which pried obsessively into the public and private lives of the Moriscos to ensure their conformity. These efforts were not entirely unsuccessful. Many Moriscos did become ‘good and faithful Christians’. Others engaged in covert and sometimes violent resistance that confirmed the worst suspicions and prejudices of their Christian enemies. In the last decades of the sixteenth century leading Spain’s rulers concluded that assimilation was impossible and considered drastic solutions to the ‘Morisco question’ that included mass castration, physical extermination, and physical expulsion.
In 1582 Philip II accepted expulsion in principle, but it was not until 1609 that the final decision to expel the Moriscos was taken by his son. This decision followed a series of Spanish military reversals and a severe economic crisis, which some Spaniards saw as an expression of divine disfavour at the continued presence of Morisco infidels and heretics in Christian lands. Expulsion was seen as an act of religious purification and a sacrificial ‘burnt offering’ that would transform Spain’s fortunes and remove a niggling problem that had obsessed its rulers for decades.
At first sight there may seem little in common between the ruthless destruction of Moorish Spain and the contemporary debates about secularism and tolerance that underpin Europe’s ‘ Muslim problem’. But bigotry and intolerance do not always require purple robes and autos da fe. Every age produces its own rationalisations for persecution.
Such episodes are often accompanied by an aggrieved and self-righteous sense of victimhood, in which powerful majorities depict even the weakest and most marginalised ‘out-groups’ as collectively incompatible, alien and dangerous. Once these depictions are taken for granted then even the most radical solutions may seem reasonable and even unavoidable.
All these elements were present in the expulsion of the Moriscos. Four hundred years later, as politicians and demagogues on both sides of the Atlantic subject Muslims to a new inquisitorial gaze, this painful chapter in Spanish history is a salutary reminder of what can happen when powerful societies embark on the road to forced assimilation in an attempt to ensure that ‘they’ become like ‘us’.
Matthew Carr is author of Blood and Faith: The Purging of Muslim Spain
(the UK edition is here).